I don't know about you, but spring makes me really hungry. My horsey body requires fresh nutrients and interesting flavors to fill the blah void of winter in my stomach. After recalling the fantastic taste of okonomiyaki last week, I have decided to take a longer way home from my stay in Thailand and to visit Japan once again. Japaneese food is amoung my favourite ones after all.
Regardless of what you might have heard or read, Japanese food is not really all that strange, or different. The chefs of Japan are masters at taking familiar European or Chinese flavors and making them into truly superior creations. So plenty of what you may eat in Japan will actually appear, or rather taste, somehow familiar, but at the same time - different. Sometimes better, sometimes odd, sometimes puzzling, but never bad, and never worse than the original.
Take a humble Chinese dumpling, for example. The master cooks of Japan turned it into one of nearly national obsessions - gyoza. And let me tell you, there is no better place in Japan to eat gyoza than the biggest city in Tochigi prefecture - Utsunomiya. Why? It's the self-proclaimed Japanese capital of gyoza. In addition to producing the most dumplings per capita, it's also the national champion in gyoza consumption. People here eat more gyoza than anywhere else in Japan. Though it's been a tough competition with the city of Hamamatsu - for a few years its inhabitants ate more dumplings than Utsunomiyans. The good folk of Utsunomiya did not take kindly to such a very serious humiliation, and finally in 2013 Utsunomiya became number 1 again. So not only do they produce boatloads of gyoza, they also eat more than anywhere else in Japan. And probably, anywhere else in the world. Don't believe me? Take a look at this menu.
And this is just the menu listing specials for one day only (Wednesday). That particular restaurant has a different dumpling menu for every day of the week. And how many dumpling varieties do they serve? I lost count at 60-something. Yep. Over 60 types of dumplings at just one, simple, everyday restaurant in a simple, everyday shopping center. Unbelievable? It is!
And how come the city is number one in gyoza consumption in Japan. Just take a look at this.
This is a very conservative (read: small) order for just two people (and one horse). One of these people was a woman, of rather small dimensions, if my horsey eyes can be trusted. And get this! Restaurant gyoza consumption is NOT counted towards the overall total in gyoza gluttony. ONLY dumplings purchased at stores and prepared and eaten at home are included in the final tally. So not only do these people eat like gyoza-hungry monster when they go out, they also eat like gyoza-hungry monsters when they cook at home.
Ok, ok, but what is this gyoza anyway? Think giant ravioli, or pierogis, but with savory filling only (though novelty sweet versions also exist, like choco-banana gyoza, for example) - meat, cabbage, vegetables, garlic. Lots and lots of garlic. I think nearly every culture has its own stick-to your-ribs type of dumpling. And in China and Japan, it's gyoza.
So, just how serious is this gyoza business in the city that calls itself the gyoza capital of Japan? Very serious. There are over 300 gyoza restaurants in Utsunomiya. And yes, you guessed it, they serve nothing but gyoza and rice. Deep-fried gyoza, skillet fried gyoza, steamed gyoza, gyoza in a soup, boiled gyoza, and who knows what else. On the east side of Utsunomiya station there is a small area with probably the highest concentration of gyoza restaurants in the whole country.
And the most famous of these restaurants is Min-Min. This is what you can expect at any Min-Min branch in Utsunomiya.
A long line of gyoza-hungry monsters waiting patiently in line to satisfy their dumpling cravings. Long lines are normal at top gyoza restaurants, be prepared to wait for up to an hour. But that's not all. Utsunomiyans are not only huge gyoza lovers. They are also a little bit crazy. They think gyoza is not only tasty, but beautiful as well. As beautiful as the Venus de Milo. Don't believe me? Take a look at this. Yep, it's the famous Gyoza of Utsunomiya, patterned after the (a lot more) famous Venus.
But wait, that's not all! They also have a special gyoza festival. It takes place during the first weekend in November and is treated with nearly religious importance and devotion.
But wait, that's still not all! They also have the Utsunomiya gyoza theme song and dance (performed here by the lovely cheerleaders of the local pro basketball team - Tochigi Brex). Hey, watch at your own risk. But don't blame me later if you develop a sudden craving for dumplings!
Time to eat now, not much left for me from the order that I have shown you above.